Why Doesn’t Every American Have a Robot Dog?

Fake puppies that could move and bark and dance were all the rage in the early 2000s. How is it possible that we live in a society that could fall out of love with such a thing?

A photograph of three Poo-Chi devices and their little dog bones
Poo-Chi, a popular robot dog from the year 2000 (Getty)

There was a time when the little robot dog was among the most coveted items in the world.

From about 1999 to 2008, all kids had to do was decide which little robot dog they longed for the most. There were so many fantastic options. From the Canadian company WowWee, Mega-Byte the Hound Droid, which had a big, blocky head and glowing eyes. From Mattel, Rocket the Wonder Dog, which “rocketed through space, time, and the Milky-Bone Galaxy looking for a loving home here on earth.”

As the toys became more innovative, the industry started to see major hits. Robot dogs became cool. In 2000, Sega partnered with Tiger Electronics to create Poo-Chi, a robot dog with expressive (red) LED eyes. If you had two Poo-Chi dogs, they would sing duets together. Reportedly, the first 10 million Poo-Chis sold in less than a year. They were so lovable and recognizable that they were soon adapted into a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy. Yet they faced competition for the hearts of America’s youth, mainly from ToyQuest’s Tekno the Robotic Puppy, which could be taught to perform tricks, and which would make a very sad whining noise when ignored. It was Tekno that appeared on the cover of Time magazine in December 2000, wearing an elf hat, standing in fake snow, paired with the headline “Tech Comes to Toyland.” It was Tekno that went on The Tonight Show. (Today, there is a vibrant Tumblr subculture around identifying as Tekno. Such is Tekno’s charm!)

Then came the iDog, which was a robot dog that would emote in response to whatever music you played on your iPod or, in my case, your SanDisk MP3 player. (His body was a speaker.) I haven’t owned a robotic puppy in nearly 20 years, yet I still think about them from time to time. They are such a good idea; having a little guy stomping around, barking and wiggling, is so fun. Years ago, the marketing for Rocket the Wonder Dog promised “a technological triumph,” “your new best friend,” and a companion that would behave “just like a real dog.” It seemed over the top at the time, but supposedly, technology is only ever advancing. Shouldn’t the robot-dog market be a true world of wonders by now?

Out of (childlike) curiosity, I decided to look into the current state of robot-dog technology, starting by browsing current offerings in a post titled “10 Best Robot Dog Toys (2022),” shared recently on a website called Mom Loves Best. It’s not the fault of the author, but this list is sad. It makes me sad. These toys are either years-old (FurReal Friends’s Pax, My Poopin’ Pup came out in 2016), aesthetically horrifying (Zoomer’s Playful Pup is all plastic except for his cloth ears and tail?), or extremely functionally limited (Perfect Petzzz’s puppy appears to do nothing but sleep). Many do not move on their own and are remote-controlled—like a drone, or an air conditioner. The list includes the Joy for All Companion Pet Pup, which was designed not with children’s play in mind but with the social and emotional needs of elderly people who can no longer care for real pets. Its primary distinguishing feature is that it has a simulated heartbeat.

Search for a robot dog on Amazon, and the top results are the opposite of indelible toy icons that could appear on the cover of a national magazine. They aren’t even nice-looking toys made by recognizable companies. They’re mostly stupidly named offerings from those fake-sounding Amazon brands, such as SANGKN, Grarg, and HI-TECH OPTOELETRONICS CO., LTD. Store (yes, electronics spelled “eletronics”). They’re toys like “okk Robot Dog Toys for Kids, Remote Control Robot Toys, Interactive & Smart Programmable Walking Dancing RC Dog Robot, Rechargeable Electronic Pets Gifts for Boys Girls Age 6, 7, 8, 9, 10,11,12,” created by a Chinese company you’ve never heard of that also sells heated blankets. Or “RCRobot Dog Toys for Boys Girls Age 3 4 5+, Electronic Dog Pets Programmable Interactive & Smart Dancing Walking Remote Control Robot Dog with Touch Function, Voice Control, Gifts for Kids,” created by a Chinese company you’ve never heard of that also sells massage oil, treadmills, and 23andMe kits. Not one of these dogs does anything that a robot dog couldn’t do back when I was in elementary school.

What gives? When I emailed Peter Kahn, a psychologist at the University of Washington and expert in human-robot interaction, who in 2004 co-authored a paper about Sony’s high-end robotic dog Aibo and its relationships with various toddlers, he said he agreed with me that the situation was outrageous. He also said that he had no idea what was causing it. “There seems to have been so little that has advanced from Aibo from, what, 20 years ago?!” he wrote. “Why not? It would be super interesting if you could talk to people inside the companies to try to figure out their explanation(s).” I agree, but none of the toy companies answered my emails—save for Hasbro, which said it could not discuss robot dogs.

Instead, I wrote to the Strong National Museum of Play, located in my hometown of Rochester, New York. Its robot curator did not feel qualified to comment—robot dogs not being a specific area of expertise within her area of expertise—but a spokesperson pointed me to Richard Gottlieb, the founder of the consultancy Global Toy Experts. He had a pretty straightforward hypothesis: “These were what we call ‘watch me’ toys, and they don’t demand a lot of interaction from the user,” he said. “They tend to be kind of boring after a while. I think that’s really the cause of their demise.” In short, a robot dog is not that fun long term, even if you’re sure it will be at first.

He also felt that robots could be threatening. “Anytime you have a new way to play, it scares some parents,” Gottlieb told me. During the Furby craze, parents and scientists expressed some concern that children might not understand that their robot pets were not actually alive. At the time, the sociologist Sherry Turkle and her research assistant Jennifer Audley interviewed 5-to-10-year-olds about this. “Often the answer they settled on was, ‘It’s not alive in a human or animal kind of way, but in a Furby kind of way,” Audley told The New York Times. Parents were left to decide whether this was comforting or really weird.

Different people probably have different thresholds for what they think is acceptable in terms of robot-child interaction. For example, in 2014, Bob Del Principe, the creator of Tekno the Robotic Puppy, introduced the doll My Friend Cayla, which could listen and respond to children, and which was banned in Germany as an illegal surveillance device. (German parents were told to destroy Cayla dolls or risk paying a sizable fine.) Today, much more so than 20 years ago or even eight years ago, parents may have privacy concerns about interactive toys in general, having now lived in the age of voice assistants, which has been kind of creepy.

And so, toy pets have evolved away from listening, thinking, learning, and moving on their own. When I spoke with Jennifer Lynch, a writer and trend analyst for the toy industry’s trade association, she insisted that toy pets are as popular as ever but that toymakers are not focused on iterating in the realm of robots. “As with any toy space, innovation in the category kind of ebbs and flows,” she told me. Right now, the innovation in toy pets is guided by YouTube and TikTok unboxing videos. The best-selling toys are the ones that can be turned into compelling and colorful video content. Giving the examples of Hatchimals (little plushy guys that come in plastic eggs you “hatch” in your house) and Magic Mixies (little plushy guys that are born inside plastic cauldrons you keep in your house), Lynch told me that “the unboxing around the pet has become more the magical element for kids.”

That brings me to the final problem: Robots are not magical to children anymore. They’re like school, or the evening news. Outside the toy aisle, they have gotten far more advanced and STEM-y, and arguably more sinister. Famously, these robot dogs can do backflips and dance routines for our amusement, and others of them can carry guns and act like cops. This has meant that even children can no longer live in an innocent state of awe when confronted with something that acts, in some ways, as if it is alive. They are forced to punch through the curtain and face reality. Tragically, the freakish-looking (skinless and fleshless) metal dogs of the 2010s and 2020s have now inspired educational robot-dog toys that are so ugly and are designed to help children learn to code.

It was amazing to know nothing about why Tekno the Robotic Puppy was the way he was, or how he decided when to bark or wiggle. But it would be too terrifying to grow up without understanding something of how these robot dogs’ brains work. Lord.